Khunjrab border Pakistan/China. Image by Adbullah Shakoor.
By Sazzad Haider
The most people have agreed on the potency of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which is working to improve the lives of 60 percent world population.
Within next 30 years, new roads, railway networks, ports, power stations and telecommunications will be built in moreover 138 countries of South America, Africa, Asia and Europe.
But lot of controversy exists over the economic and political motives of the Chinese Mega Projects.
Moreover, the environmentalists fear the BRI’s adverse effect on climate. This impact on the climate has indicated an imminent danger for survival of the world. The BRI has taken enormous projects to build coal-fired power stations, steel & cement industries, ports and traditional road communications in participator countries.
After implementing, these installations will produce plenty of carbon could contribute to rise the global warming.
The industrial activities of the world have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 280 parts per million to 412 parts per million in the last 150 years. The human-produced greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have caused the increasing earth’s temperatures over the past 50 years.
Our planet is already affected by 1°C of global warming. Global warming already changed the weather balance and ecosystems, rising sea levels and melting Arctic sea ice. Every bit of manmade warming creates great ricks for the existing of human civilization. If the carbon emissions are continuing to increase; by the end of this century the earth will be suffered from food shortages, agricultural failure and greatest population displacement. Last three decades temperature was highly increased than all previous decades.
Scientists believe that rapid developments activities resulted in the global warming. The overconsumption and indiscriminate urbanizations also contribute to climate-change. The Beijing- citizens or Delhi-citizens are suffering from severe pollution of smog. Smog is the causes of reducing visibility, plant damage, irritation of the eyes, and respiratory distress.
“Some hundreds of thousands of premature deaths and incidents of serious respiratory illness have been caused by exposure to industrial air pollution. Seriously contaminated by industrial discharges, many of China’s waterways are largely unfit for direct human use”. The World Bank said in a report.
The enormous economic activities, increasing the number of motorized vehicles, population growth, industrial output and overconsumption of goods caused widespread air pollution in the Chinese capital Beijing. The pall of automotive or industrial particles lies over the sky of Beijing frequently. Hebei and Tianjin are smoggiest cities in northern regions of China.
The pollution from the economic growth is now a long-term anxiety for China. The quick industrializations in China is the great topic of climate issues. The industrial pollution causes cancer- leading the death in China. Every year, air pollution killed hundreds of thousands of citizens.
Moreover, 500 million of the Chinese people have suffered from lack of safe and clean drinking water. The Chinese mega cities are repeatedly covered in “toxic gray shroud”, only 1% of urban population of China has breathed fresh air as the European Union standard.(4) Not only in the Chinese cities; Tokyo, Seoul or Las Angels have affected from the acid rain consisting of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.
The BRI also intensifies fast urbanizations and overconsumption. The electricity production of the world is expected to rise to 36.5 T-kWh in 2040. (5)Moreover 50,000 coal fired power plants are working now all over the world. These power plants are not producing only electricity for development of human civilization but also producing particles for acid rain to perish the civilization.
The UN secretary general Antonio Guterres called upon all the nations not to build new coal power plants from 2020 “if we are to stand a chance of ending the climate crisis”.
The coal processes energy by breaking down of carbon molecules. The chemical reactions also erupt toxic airborne pollutants and heavy metals into the environment. The coal fire power plants produce mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matters and also boost up mercury emission in air.
Since 2014, some countries including the USA, China and European Union have fixed the “emissions limit,” very low sulfur dioxide and mercury particulate for coal-fired power generation plants. The USA, Britain and France closed down many coal-fired -power plants and looked for alternative sources of power generation. The USA shut-downed 175 coal fired power plants with capacity of 27 gigawatts. Britain built 30 gas fired power plants to replace the CPP. France also closed down 7 coal-fired plants with a capacity producing 17,58 MW. Canada also decreased the consumption of energy from coal fired power generation. However, in 2015, Germany has opened some coal fired power plants to produce 10.7 gigawatt. Japan also decided to build new coal fired power plants with in next 12 years.
Following the boom of the Chinese and Indian economic growth, the consuming of electricity from the coal fired power plants had doubled after 2000. China and India are now producing 2,000 gigawatts. They are also continuing to install new CPP to generate more over 500 GW.
China is producing 973 GW coal fired electricity nearly half the global total. China is the world’s largest CO2 emitter since 2000. The new policy of Xi has geared up the using of coal fired electricity for industrial activities. So, rate of CO2 has gradually increased. The Chinese Electricity Council has planned to produce 1,100GW coal fired electricity in 2020 and 13,00GW in 2030.
However, some analysts say China would turn back from producing coal fired electricity by 2030. But China is insisting and financing to build coal-fired power plants as the BRI projects in at least 12countries. China has gradually reduced the power generation from coal-fired plants for domestic consumption. China emphasized on productions of electricity from thermal, hydro and nuclear power plants to meet domestic demands. Therefore, the Chinese manufacturers of coal power equipment lost domestic market to build new installations. So, the Chinese companies are searching market abroad to sell coal-fired power plants equipment. They selected coal resources countries to install more generators of coal fired plants. The BRI has created a scope for marketing their products In Asia dozens of coal-fired power plants have linked into gridlines or are in constructing stages. In the South and Southeast Asia, the annual rate of consumption of coal plant electricity will be at 3.5% for next two decades.
China financed to set up new coal fired power plants to implement its BRI mission including in South Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Since, 2016 China has involved in 240 coal fired thermal power plants in the 25 BRI subscriber countries, among them six are most climate-vulnerable countries in the planet. The Chinese financed and technical supported coal-fired power plants will emit carbon in air for decades and contributing of climate change in future.
However, China is the world’s largest CO2 emitter but now it is also the biggest investor in renewable energy sector to reduce the costs of renewable energy infrastructure. China is implementing massive drive for more efficient and less polluter coal plants comparably the USA coal plants. China upgraded Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan coal plants with new environmentally friendly technology. China also signed MOU to up upgrade coal plants of Bangladesh.
The ‘Polar-BRI’ would also contribute to damage of Arctic environment although China has Arctic policy objective to address climate change to protect the Arctic. In 2018, China has introduced its Arctic Policy as well as Polar Silk Road consisting of the Arctic region which is under threat from rapid ice-melting due to the global warming.
China involved with construction of moreover 200 dam projects in the 49 BRI subscriber countries. The dams have a negative impact on river ecosystems, biodiversity and social habitats. China also has taken massive initiative to construct roads & highways to inter-connect insolated the BRI region which caused a disastrous impact on biodiversity includes wildlife mortality, restrictions of animal movement and reduction of tropical forests. The increasing of human activities in projects area can encourages illegal logging, poaching and fires. The hydroelectricity has also damaged the local habitat as well as local environment.
The BRI projects also could degrade or destruct partly rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra; moreover, the central forest spine of peninsular Malaysia or the tropical forest in Myanmar and even the mangroves in Bangladesh. Sri Lanka is under threat from soil erosion, water cycle disruption and greenhouse gas emissions which effecting on nature and species. Moreover, 1739 important bird areas and key biodiversity area were identified as at risk of harm, according to WWF.
In Indonesia, the Tapanuli orangutan, the world’s rarest great ape is at risk from the construction of US$ 1.6 billion hydroelectric power plant Sumatra’s Batang Toru forest highlands. The forest is also habitat to the critically endangered Sumatran tiger and Sunda pangolin.
The Current Biology, a biweekly scientific journal reviewed BRI effect on bio-diversity and identified 98 amphibians, 177 reptiles, 391 birds, 150 mammals in several countries along BRI roads and projects are threatening from ecosystems.
China has constructed seven hydropower dams on the upper Mekong River (known as the Lancang in China) and planned to install more 21dams. The upper Mekong passes through Qinghai, Tibet and Yunnan; then flowing into Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The dams on the upper Mekong river has affected lives and livelihoods of the people of lower Mekong region. The water-flow of Mekong river has destructively reduced and also altered water temperatures. Unstable water temperature has changed the behaviors of fish species, impacted on fish reproduction and migration activities. Drought erupts frequently in these regions allegedly caused by Lancang dams. Villagers living along the Mekong river have suffered from shortage of water for irrigating their riverbank vegetables farmland. In a nut-shell, the Mekong river dams have threaten fish populations, creates soil erosion, altering natural river hydrology and life-sustaining ecosystem.
The mammoth projects for road and railway communication of the BRI corridors are especially vulnerable for destruction of forest and ecosystem. The projects can generate multiplication of sedimentation in rivers and streams, creating long-term effects on downstream aquatic communities and threatening widespread food-rick.
The BRI road and railways have built in ancient growth forests and mountains, therefore according a World Bank report, so far, the BRI subscriber countries lost 6% of forest.(31) The projects generate noise, air pollution, exhaust emissions, eliminating of habitat and 1% to 2% of the land cover of most countries.
However, in 2017, the Chinese Ministry on environmental protection has taken a guideline on promoting Green Belt and Road to pay more attention to deal with climate change. Moreover, environmentalists sighed with relief as China launched a coalition to integrate economic, social and environmental issues into the BRI projects. The BRI International Green Development Coalition (BRIGC) was formed during the Belt and Road Forum meeting which was held in Beijing in 2019. The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) is a leading partner while over 100 international and Chinese organizations have acted in the coalition. 26 environmental ministries of UN member states have also involved with the coalition.
However, China has provided a small investment in green projects of developing nation comparably the Chinese investment in environmentally damaged infrastructure projects. From 2014 to 2017, according to report of World Resources Institute (WRI)and Boston University, out of the loans of China Development Bank and Export Import Bank of China in the energy sector of BRI countries, 43 % have gone to oil, gas and petrochemicals, 18 % to coal, only 3.4 % to solar, 2.9 % to wind energy.
Therefore, China should take up integrate plan to ensue environmental standards of the BRI infrastructure development projects which is already branded as great caused of man-made environmental calamity.
Sazzad Haider is a writer, journalist and filmmaker living in Bangladesh. He edits The Diplomatic Journal.